With the established world order witnessing a massive churn, how will India's ties with its oldest ally Russia fare It may finally be time to ratchet it up a bit.
In the times of the pandemic when physical meetings have become anathema and virtual conferences are in vogue, India's defence minister Rajnath Singh stepped outside his home soil to visit Russia for three days in June. This was the first time in four months that a senior minister from India had made a foreign visit. Singh's visit was to attend the 75th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Germany in the second world war, hardly something that is unavoidable when the world's most lethal pandemic is all around. Yet, it showed the level of trust and amity inherent in Indo-Russian ties.
That was clearly not a one off either. On August 5, India's foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla discussed the possibility of restarting physical meetings with Russian deputy foreign minister Igor Morgulov. In the realm of global diplomacy where tone and tenour in a conversation holds as much value as the written word, the importance of a physical meeting is unparalleled. Once again, the choice of Russia to kickstart the symbolic return to normalcy is not a coincidence.
India and Russia have shared a mutually beneficial relationship based on trust and friendship honed over 70 years now. Diplomatic relations between the two countries started four months before India even got independence. In the period just after independence, as India sought to empower its economy in its quest for self-sufficiency, Russia pitched in with technology and investments in heavy machine building, mining, energy production and steel plants.
Later when India decided to not get drawn into the politics of cold war, Russia had no problems with it even as the US gave India the cold shoulder then opting for Pakistan instead for geopolitical reasons.
The signing of the Treaty of peace and friendship between the two nations in August 1971 further strengthened the bond just before India fought its second war with Pakistan that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Russia has always been on India's side when it has waged a war and much of India's defence system was built on Russian equipment acquired on credit. In every war that India has fought and won, Russia has had a big role to play.
Proof of the strength of the relationship lies in the fact that it remained forever rock solid even when India sought to better its ties with the US, Russia's perennial archrival. In the paradigm of “with me or against me” dynamic of global diplomacy, this lack of insecurity is telling. By 1990, ties were so strong that Russia was the top destination for Indian exports. While things changed in the aftermath of the break-up of USSR which was also the time when India opened its economy and generally improved its relations with the US, on broader issues there has never been any conflict with Russia.
The changing world order now has opened the doors for India to impart a fresh lease to its relatively dormant ties with Russia. For one, that will help India to not get too dependent on the US for the future. The scope for deepening ties is also substantial, especially on trade and commerce. While India continued to buy arms and ammunition heavily from Russia even after the break-up of the USSR--the two nations signed a fresh treaty of friendship and cooperation followed by a military technical cooperation agreement in 1993, overall trade hasnt lived upto their potential. In 2014, India was 18th in the list of Russia's top exporters while it was 23rd in the list of India's importers. Bilateral trade was under $ 10 billion then missing an earlier target of achieving $ 20 billion by 2015. Since then it has only stagnated--bilateral trade was just $ 7.87 billion in 2019-20 making the new target of achieving $ 30 billion by 2025, an ambitious task.
Not everything is bleak. The high level of trust and confidence between the two governments has rubbed off on the private sector with companies from both countries collaborating in joint projects in third countries. Indian and Russian firms are cooperating in oil and gas explorations projects in Vietnam and discussions are on for joint development of Bangladesh's Roopur Nuclear Power project. Negotiations for a free trade agreement have also started between India and the Eurasian Economic Union. As India along with the rest of the world, looks at reducing its dependence on China, attention should turn to fully exploit the potential with Russia.
India and Russia may not be natural allies like the US with whom India shares common democratic values, but it is a friendship that has stood the test of time. The need is to rapidly build for the future on this foundation.
In the fragile world economy of the post pandemic era, trust deficit between countries is likely to be at an all-time high. It is something that India and Russia will never suffer from which sets them well to chart a mutually beneficial way forward.